Iceland - October 2004
It's no secret, of course, that I like to take special opportunities to go somewhere exotic, whether it be Brazil, Macchu Pichu, or a country that touches the Arctic Circle. So why Iceland? Well, one night in July, I arrived late to spend the weekend in New York and met up with Raj, Evan, and a few others at an outdoor cafe on 2nd Ave, to have a few beers before calling it a night, since the next night was my birthday party. Somehow the conversation moved into travel, and Evan casually mentioned that he had gone to Iceland a few summers ago and was hoping to go back. I said that I had heard great things about Iceland and knew some other people considering it, and before you knew it, Raj was in, too.
So that was all it took. That now having been established, here are some facts about Iceland: Population 280,000. Currency is the Krone, plural Kroner, exchange rate 68 Kroner = 1 dollar (the reverse being that 1 Krone = 1.4 cents). Language is Icelandic, which sounds very much like German, but almost everyone speaks english, and a good number speak it very well. Reykjavik is at latitude 66 north - the northernmost capital city in the world. Gas came out to 159 Kroner per liter: over SIX DOLLARS a gallon! Indeed, Iceland is expensive in general; a pint of Carlsberg was usually $8 or $9, even at run-of-the-mill places. Food was expensive too, with a bowl of soup costing maybe $10 or more.
Iceland sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and is basically a volcanic island. As such, there are geysers on the island, and the most famous of them is the suite of geyser activity at a location named Geysir - a name which seems almost silly until you learn that this is in fact the first geyser ever discovered, and that all others are named for this particular one. It doesn't erupt very often, but its close neighbor is a geyser named Strokker, a name that will undoubtedly draw a snicker or two from those who appreciate crass humor. This particular geyser erupts every 5-10 minutes, more regular than Old Faithful in Yellowstone, and rather spectacularly. The water bubbles and heaves for the minute or so before eruption, and then suddenly spews water some 75 feet into the air, dwarfing the spectators in this photo.
On the way to Geysir is more evidence of volcanic activity. A large bubble of volcanic gasses once reached the surface and formed a large crater. Called Kerio, the crater is essentially an old small volcano that collapsed into its magma chamber below the earth's surface when it went extinct. The water at the bottom is in fact the water table, not accumulated rainwater. The colors on the side of the inside of the crater are reds caused by volcanic rock, and greenish yellows caused by grasses and mosses growing on the surface.
The countryside is filled with lots of rocks, with some farms mixed in. Some of which were quite interesting - ever wonder where marshmallows came from? Well, in Iceland we found out. Here we see a pair of marshmallow piles which have recently been harvested, waiting to go to market. They will be exported to various factories throughout the world, where they will be cut into smaller sizes and packaged for consumption. We saw a number of these farms, interspersed with sheep pastures and some horse farms. But what we DIDN'T see were trees! There are very few of them on the island outside of the cities, where they are planted by locals. Native plants seem to be confined to grasses, mosses, and shrubs.
As we arrived at our next destination, we noticed that we could see Langjokull, one of the country's four gigantic glaciers. You can see the glacier as it appears like a fog passing amongst the background mountains, but it's no fog. It's a huge sheet of ice nestled in the southwest mountains of the island. We were much too far away to drive anywhere near it, but it was a good reminder that we didn't have enough time to see as much of the island as we needed to.
This brought us to the Gullfoss waterfall, probably Iceland's most famous attraction. The falls are said to be much more spectacular on a sunny day, but I didn't have the luxury of waiting for sunshine on a day where it had been raining all day long. So perhaps the falls don't look as spectacular on film as they do in person, given that the mist and the rain merge to form a bit of a fog that takes away their majesty.
Perhaps this photo tells more. You can see here the source of the falls, which is the Hvita river. The Hvita is a river formed by drainage and also runoff from the Langjokull glacier, and was once in danger of being dammed for a hydroelectric project that was fortunately thwarted. My favorite part of this photo, though, is the people standing on the promontory in the foreground, giving one a sense of the scale of the falls. It's awesome.
From there, it was down to the coast. This is the part of the trip where I got to drive; the roads were narrow, not particularly stable, and totally empty. We passed through sheep farm after sheep farm, not seeing people except for the occasional driver going the other way or getting passed by me. Once we got the coast, near Stokkseryi, we stopped and walked around the flats here, which were at low tide, leaving kelp all over the place. The waves were way outside and inaudible; it was cold and rainy, and there wasn't another human in sight. I've never experienced a coastline like it.
Day two began late; we didn't get up until 1230, after spending much of the previous evening out. I hadn't slept more than an hour by the time we went to sleep Friday night, so waking up late was just fine with me. We spent the entire afternoon walking around downtown Reykjavik, and the weather finally came into our favor, with partly sunny skies and 63 degrees or so air temperature.
One of the things Iceland is well known for is its arts community - Bjork is synonymous with the music scene, of course - and we got an interesting demonstration of this on Laugavegur, one of the main shopping streets. In this picture, all the girls in black are dancers in some kind of performance art troupe, dancing in total silence, but unending - and we ran into them later in the afternoon. People were following them on their tour of the street; sometimes one of two would duck into a store, dance in there, and come back out, all choreographed together. Odd? Yup.
This is a fairly typical view from Laugavegur; it's a bit up the hill from the bay, so as you pass the side streets you can see the bay and some hills in the background. Very pretty. And the cars you see here are all parked; there is a fair amount of traffic in Reykjavik. The car brands we noticed most were Toyota, Renault, Suzuki, Nissan, and Volkswagen; but none of these nameplates were for brands we have here. The Nissans were usually something called a Sunny, for example.
One of Reykjavik's great architectural marvels and landmarks is the cathedral called Hallgrimskirkja, a structure which took 34 years to build. It's very impressive from up close, as is its courtyard, which features numerous steel statues in various positions. Inside it's largely barren and doesn't allow photography, which is unfortunate because I thought the interior architecture was just as impressive as its exterior. Compared with La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, I would have to say that the Hallgrimskirkja is the more pleasing to the eye.
Following are some random shots throughout central Reykjavik; pass the mouse over the picture for a brief description.
Finally, on the last day - during which the wind was absolutely whipping around - we went to the Blue Lagoon on the way to the airport. The lagoon is a geothermal pool from which Iceland harnesses energy for electricity. Legend has it that the mud at the bottom of the pool has healing powers, so you get here and put on your bathing suit and get in the water, which is 95 to 100 degrees even though the air temperature is about 35. It's only four feet deep, so you have to keep a low profile to avoid the freezing cold winds. On the right side of the picture, you can see some steam emerging through a vent, and on that side of the pool the water is more like 105; doesn't sound like a big difference, but it sure is! And of course, there are showers there.
And that was it. The rocks you see here are typical of the drive to the airport, and really of much of the country that isn't urbanized. Igneous, volcanic rocks with huge patches of moss growing on them, for miles. It's really quite beautiful, and chances are that many of these rocks haven't moved in thousands of years. Eventually, though, things will change; because Iceland sits on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, it straddles two tectonic plates, the North American plate and the European Plate, and they're moving apart at a rate of maybe 1 mm a year. So it'll be here for our lifetimes, but eventually the island will split into two seperate islands, and who knows what after that? In the meantime, it's all nicely connected and a great visit.
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